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Every Two Days, the Navy Spills Fuel Into Ocean, Survey Finds

Pollution: From Pearl Harbor to Philadelphia, San Diego to Puget Sound, oil and lubricants slip into the sea. Outdated technology gets much of the blame.


In Washington State's Puget Sound, dotted with timber-covered islands and blessed with boatloads of oysters, clams, mussels and salmon, the U.S. Navy is making a mess.

It's not much better in San Diego, where surfers complain they sometimes have to clean oil off their boards with lighter fluid.

Even in Norfolk, Va., where ships have been a part of life since before the American Revolution, thousands of gallons of fuel, lubricating oil and other pollutants pour into the water each year.

All told, Navy spills in U.S. ports came to 181,453 gallons from fiscal 1990 to '97, according to an Associated Press analysis of Navy data. On average, there was a spill every two days.

"Oil in the water is a concern to anybody, regardless of the amount," said Capt. John Schrinner, Norfolk port captain for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for cleanliness and safety on the water.

From Pearl Harbor to Philadelphia, Navy spills have become commonplace. The largest bases see the most. Puget Sound ports had the greatest spillage: 56,674 gallons during the eight-year period. That's 60% of all spills in the Sound, Navy and Coast Guard data show. Norfolk-area spills came to 36,773 gallons. The San Diego waterfront counted 33,584 gallons. The Mayport, Fla., area: 10,805.

The main culprits are old technology--shipboard fuel tanks are often measured by sticking a pole down to see how much gets wet--as well as complex fuel-transfer systems and human error.

"Virtually every recent spill would not have occurred if properly trained and supervised personnel had followed written procedures to the letter," Rear Adm. W.D. Center, commander of the Seattle naval base, wrote to his unit commanders after a recent spate of spills.

The admiral noted the importance of reacting quickly. "Unfortunately," he said, "one reason we are so good at responding to spills is that we have been getting a lot of practice."

Officials in some states are concerned because there is little outside policing of Navy spill response. Under federal law, commercial vessels, from fishing boats to supertankers, must clean up spills or risk Coast Guard fines. They can be inspected at any time. Navy ships are exempt.

At 12:55 p.m. on a rainy Sept. 18, the Navy's prevention mechanism failed again. This time it was the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, which is moored in Mayport, near Jacksonville, Fla. The ship was transferring diesel fuel from one on-board tank to another. A stuck valve misdirected fuel flow. The whiskey-brown liquid poured over the side.

The pier was soon swarming with sailors in white hazardous-material suits. Emergency vehicles, lights flashing, stood by. Within several hours, the 500-gallon spill was almost clear--with as much fuel out of the water as the Navy could retrieve.

Just one day before, the ship's captain had spoken to a reporter about spill prevention. "We do back flips to try to prevent it," said Capt. Robin Weber. "I would say we've done an extraordinarily good job."

Steve Hunter, supervisor for the Washington state Department of Ecology's office of spill response, says he's heard one common refrain from the sailors and officers of the nuclear-powered carrier Carl Vinson, which has spilled 3,984 gallons in eight years:

" '50s technology for the '90s."

Aboard the older, nonnuclear Kennedy, which was commissioned in 1968, fuel is routed to 213 tanks by turning heavy, steering-wheel-like valves. The valves, 762 in all, are scattered about the ship, which is 23 stories high, keel to mast, and three football fields long. Fueling operations must be carefully choreographed.

The size and complexity of carriers, like the Kennedy, make them the messiest class of ships in the service, responsible for 41,158 gallons of port spillage from fiscal 1990 to '97.

"There's just a lot more opportunity to make a mistake," said Capt. Donald Lewis, the Coast Guard's captain of port in Jacksonville.

In contrast, hulking commercial tankers do little with their millions of gallons of oil beyond loading it on and pumping it off. Civilian tankers of about the same gross tonnage as U.S. carriers spilled far less--all together, 757 gallons--in U.S. waters than the Kennedy (4,000 gallons), the Carl Vinson and their sister ships. There were 33 such tanker spills in fiscal 1990-97.

When tankers do spill, though, they can spill big. Usually, the cause is a grounding or collision. With major spills factored in, the average spill size for all tankers in U.S. waters came to 1,378 gallons during the 1990 to '97 period, according to Coast Guard data. The average Navy port spill was 129 gallons.

Nationwide, Navy spillage increased from 17,370 gallons in fiscal 1990 to 66,404 in '97. The service says improved record-keeping may make the situation look worse than it is.

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